Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Flowers in Art... and Charles Rennie Mackintosh

My second Scottish artist this week, for the Flowers in Art project, is Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). He is best known for his architecture and other design work but also produced some wonderful flower drawings and landscape watercolours of Suffolk and the south of France. He also used flowers as motifs in his design work.
Art is the Flower. Life is the Green Leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing,something that will convince the world that there may be, there are, things more precious more beautiful - more lasting than life itself (Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 1902 lecture 'Seemliness')
You can see the Mackintosh flower drawings in one of two ways.

You can either visit the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow (which houses the Mackintosh Collection of works and archive material related to Mackintosh) or you can view online via the Mackintosh Online Catalogue. Browse the catalogue to access the flower drawings, watercolours and designs. This provides images and details of all the drawings and watercolours in the collection.
  • Click on an image to see a larger version plus notes relating to each work. These include botanical notes about the subject.
  • Click on the image again and you can see even larger versions - here are a few examples:
High resolution versions are available by mailing the Hunterian Photo Library.

Alternatively you can buy the book "Mackintosh Flower Drawings" by Pamela Roberston and published by the Hunterian Art Gallery. I managed to get hold of a very good second hand copy using Amazon. It was first produced as a catelogue in 1988 to accompany an exhibition of Mackintosh's flower drawings held at the Hunterian Art Gallery - as its contribution to Glasgow's Garden Festival. It contains large images and detailed notes of all the flowers in the collection. It's a very informative and fascinating book and is recommended by me for anybody who wants to know more about this approach to drawing flowrs.

My analysis of Mackintosh's approach to flower drawing follows.

  • in his 1902 lecture on "Seemliness", CRM likened art to a flower
    • he rallied his audience not to draw from dead, dying or articial flowers but rather to draw from flowers springing from the ground - and their own soul.
    • the implication was that artists should be true to themselves - to cultivate an artistic expression born from within
  • Mackintosh considered sketching to be an important activity - it developed his skills in observations and draughtsmanship. He made lots of trips during which he sketched.
  • Mackintosh used a very distinctive linear style in everything he created. He keeps it simple and avoids redundant lines.
  • His focus in general was on contour drawing in pencil - he outlined his subjects and drew key structural lines.
  • Early flower drawings included some linear hatching as well - but this was eliminated in later works where structure and relief were indicated by line alone (prior to the addition of watercolour).
  • sketchbook drawings and early watercolours are done on fine, laid paper. He used a stronger wove paper from 1909.
  • his art (and architecture) was grounded in the use of contrast and opposites - lights and darks.
  • CRM (like others of his generation) was influenced by oriental designs which circulated in the late nineteenth century and also by how other artists had used them in their designs (eg Whistler)
Flower Drawings: a chronology
  • CRM produced some 100 flower drawings in all - and initially drew directly from nature
  • according to the catalogue his flower drawings divide into five categories: early sketchbook drawings; symbolist works of the 1892; watercolours from 1900 to 1910, the Walberswick drawings 1914-15 and the late still lives from the London Years (eg Yellow Tulips 1922-23). (I've included a link to examples where possible)
  • Early flower drawings were the product of studies done while on sketching trips. They were typically isolated specimens.
  • Flower drawings and watercolours produced in Walberswick are the product of a 15 month stay in this village on the Suffolk coast in 1914-15. Although it's evident that prior to his stay and again towards the end of his stay was not without some considerable tension, it was originally intended as a rest cure and for Mackintosh to recover his self-confidence.
  • about two-thirds of his drawings come from cultivars while the rest are plants which grow in the wild.
At least 40 resulting pencil and watercolour images, stylised into an almost Japanese purity of line and colour, are recorded in a body of work latterly rated among Mackintosh's finest achievements. They include larkspur, petunia, polyanthus, aubretia, arbutus, anemone and pasque, staghorn, winter stock (twice), moth mullein, pine, pine cone and needles, lupin, lavendar, ivy seed, field pea, bean flower, daisy, berberis, chionodoxa, kingcups, fritilleria, leycesteria, grape hyacinth, honeysuckle, veronica (twice), rosemary, jasmine, cactus flower, green hellebore. gorse, willow catkins and Japanese witch hazel. (Making Waves page 97 - commenting on the Walberswick Drawings)

  • In 1923, Mackintosh moved to the South of France with the intention of developing his career as a painter. Late flower drawings - completed at Mont Louis in the Pyrenees - were more complete, vivid and stylized than those completed in Walberswick. (eg Mont Louis Flower Study 1925).
His flower studies in France were the summation of a career experimenting with colour, form and pattern, a brilliant display of botanical awareness shot through with the irrepressible eye of a modern master. (Macktintosh - the world's greatest art)
  • some 100 flower drawings were in his possession when he died - this is believed to be the majority of his output. He had only exhibited his 7 still life flower paintings and had sold just one of these. Recognition of the worth of the flower drawing came after death.
Flower Drawings: Composition and Design
  • All his flower and plant drawings were botanically accurate. However, although very much influenced by botanical art, he did not conform to usual practice of showing stages growth. Only one (early) drawing - of Sea Thrift (1901) - is labelled bud, flower and seed
  • the majority of drawings were produced from freshly-picked specimens
  • most are drawn larger than life size
  • the Walberswick flower drawings bridge botanical correctness and decorative creativity in a stylized but harmonious way.
  • when working from nature he used his aesthetic sensibilities to create a more aesthetic design. What made Mackintosh's flower drawings very distinctive was his ability to create a design which was very pleasing to the eye.
  • he is meticulous about titling, signing and dating each work, often incorporating his cartouche box into the overall design.
Flower Drawings in Watercolour
  • Watercolour was painted inbetween and sometimes over pencil outlines.
  • Only a few of the flower paintings have any sort of context as background. In general the background is blank.
  • Pure transparent watercolours were usually used in thin washes.
  • Pigment is sometimes lifted to reduce tint strength or introduce highlights.
  • Some of the drawings are annotated with both Mackintosh's initials (CRM) and those of his wife Margaret Macdonal Mackintosh (MMM). It was customary for them both to work on creative projects. Some see the annotations on each drawing as representing who is present when he drew them while others have suggested that for some drawings he drew the plant and she did the watercolour painting.
Although all these cited images [Walberswick - see above] are clearly stamped with a cartouche box containing date, location and the initials CRM and MMM, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh has never been properly credited for her contribution to the colouring. ("Making waves" page 97)
Still Life paintings
  • Stll Life watercolours began after he left Walberswick and around the same time as he completed landscape watercolours of Port Vendre and environs in the south of France.
  • CRM did not draw from 'commercial' cut flowers until late in his career - some argue this was in some way symbolic in relation to his philosophy and his life.
Flowers in Design Work
  • CRM used flowers to develop designs for motifs to be used in a decorative way (interior design, furniture, textiles etc). He often contrasted organic forms with geometric shapes.
  • He analysed, assimilated and applied abstract principles from their structure into his own designs eg each petal on every flower had distinctive characteristics which could not be repeated in texture, shape and colour.
  • His working drawings demonstrate that he used to experiment with different colour combinations and graphic interpretations
  • CRM often started by drawing a pencil grid on his paper and then worked up his design from the grid base.
  • the rose was a favourite motif; he also developed a series in 'zinging colours' based on the tobacco flower.
When I drew as a teenager I used to draw in a very similar way to Mackintosh (I'm searching for the evidence which I've got somewhere in the bowels of my archives).

I didn't come across CRM's flower drawings until much later - but always felt very 'drawn' to them (pun intended!).

However I've not drawn like that for some time - and intend to practice more both this month and for the rest of this year in terms of developing my portfolio of flower drawings.

I had a go last night - and my example only went to prove a variation on the old adage that "the short version will take longer". In this instance, this simple outline drawing of a branch of magnolia took MUCH longer than it would normally take me!




  1. Great idea and knownledge, I do artworks too, using pigment ink marker pen for create my line. Some of my artworks seem like abstract, but I think it wasn't. I only create my own line, by hand and imagination, I didn't think too much about the technique.
    Hope you like my artwork. See my art blog

  2. Those are interesting line works Cherdpong.

    Which pigment ink len do you use?

  3. Thanks for posting this - a very informative and inspirational post! I shall have to look into his artwork further!

  4. This is an inspiring post, Katherine, I've only just had time to read it. Beautiful work both from the master and yourself! Now I'm itching to try his style.


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